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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Assessing Brent Venables’ shaky start

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Venables has to prove he’s an exception to the rule about coaches with disappointing first seasons.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Oklahoma Bryan Terry-USA TODAY Sports

Back in October, I wrote about processing the results of the Oklahoma Sooners’ first season under head coach Brent Venables. The early signs that the Sooners might be in for a long season proved accurate as OU stumbled to its worst record since 1998. Now that we have the complete body of work from season one, what conclusions can we draw?

As I noted previously, Venables is essentially cooked if you subscribe to my friend Dave Bartoo’s “Dead Man Walking” heuristic. According to this data-driven approach, Venables (and his coaching staff) had a coaching effect of -5 in year one as a result of losses to Kansas State, TCU, Baylor, West Virginia and Texas Tech. Based on OU’s talent profile, in other words, those are five games the Sooners shouldn’t lose.

For coaches in their first seasons on the job, the magic number for coaching effect is -4. Coaches who reach that level of underachievement in year one rarely survive through the end of their first contracts.

Of course, DMW describes the relationship between a condition, win-loss record in a coach’s first year, and an outcome, job tenure. It’s a tool for prognosticating success – or the lack thereof. It does not imply causation. Coaches with poor coaching effect in their first seasons could flame out for any number of reasons, including the straightforward possibility that they are just poor head coaches.

So if you want a surefire argument Venables will buck the trend, you won’t find it here. That’s not a prediction he will fail – it’s admitting reality.

It’s true, for instance, that the playing field in college football has changed dramatically in a short time. For example, the bulk of the data underlying DMW were collected prior to the NCAA relaxing its transfer rules. Coaching staffs now have more flexibility to reconstruct their rosters for immediate gains. That might facilitate faster turnarounds before coaches wear out their welcomes.

On the flip side, the old transfer rules did more to keep quality players locked in with their original teams when new coaches were hired. A coveted player like Caleb Williams, for example, might have stayed with the Sooners if transferring to another team required sitting out for a year. In that sense, we may find that OU and programs in similar situations are now pulling themselves out of even deeper holes that require longer timelines.

Meanwhile, Venables did take over at a time when some programs are benefiting significantly from eligibility exceptions for players who were on campus during the 2020 season. TCU played for a national championship in 2022 with a roster loaded with players in their fifth and sixth seasons, for instance.

That being said, other teams with first-year coaches had to play veteran-laden opponents this season, too. Not all of them shared the Sooners’ struggles.

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of saying I can’t blame anyone who feels pessimistic about Venables’ prospects as OU’s head coach. It seems natural for doubt to creep in after such a disappointing debut season. He used up plenty of goodwill in his first 13 games.

Personally, I’m still hoping for the best. OU has enjoyed so much success for the last 25 years because the Sooners were led by coaches resourceful enough to turn just about any individual team into one that could win double-digit games in a season and compete for a conference title. For example, consider the work Lincoln Riley did in 2019 by reconfiguring OU’s offense to capitalize on the talents of Jalen Hurts, a one-year rental at quarterback.

But all the winning by Venables’ most immediate predecessors made it easy to ignore a lot of scrambling from season to season to patch holes in the team. Riley and Bob Stoops demonstrated admirable resilience in developing solutions to keep their teams in the running for Big 12 titles. Stoops, in particular, had a knack for knowing what to do when the star quarterback got booted off the team or the all-world running back broke his collarbone.

After a while, though, making the best of it – and doing it well – became OU’s m.o. It felt like a perpetual high-wire act. It worked often, but the Sooners paid for it this year when they lost a future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to the transfer portal rather than acquiring one.

Venables is aiming for a more sustainable program that can truly compete with the elites of the sport. He has a long-term vision for building it. But if he can’t demonstrate in Year 2 that Year 1 was an anomaly, the chances that he gets to see that vision to fruition at OU will plummet.